Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Recording in the Digital Age

You Don't Have to be an Engineer to Make Great Recordings

Making a decent analog recording is complicated. There’s tape bias levels to set, tape type to choose (Chrome, Metal, or otherwise). And then there are levels. Too hot means distortion, and too low means soft passages will be obscured in hiss.

Now, with the latest digital technology, there are quite a few ways to make near-perfect digital recordings.

But unlike the Jetsons, all is not without controversy. There are two major issues when we’re talking about this heated topic: Licensing and The Internet. These are two issues that will change the face of consumer recording and, as you can imagine, are not unrelated.

Intellectual Property in the Digital Age

The ability to make perfect digital copies isn’t an optimal scenario for everyone. Recording artists and labels fear mass pirating of their work – which is already rampant thanks to the CD. Now, with other digital recording media available, professional record pirates will have a field day.

But what perhaps is a greater controversy is the ramifications for home recordists. In days gone by, home tapers would make their friends cassette tapes of the most “meaningful” cuts from their LPs. Friends would check out these tapes, and then go and buy the LP because the cassette reproduction was invariably of lower fidelity and only good for a sampler – not for the real thing. Now, with digital recording, there is no need for someone to go out and buy the original CD – the copy delivers the exact same high fidelity as the original!

Many of the media listed below incorporate the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS) which allows you to make a single perfect digital copy, and prohibits you from making a digital copy of the copy. This helps to thwart mass pirating but does little to inhibit your buddy from copying all of your CDs, thus eliminating the need to buy his own.

As digital memory per dollar doubles or even triples every year, it is hard to predict which digital medium will finally win out in the recording wars. Here are a few from which to choose.

Sony MiniDisc

MiniDisc technology was introduced by Sony over five years ago, and it still has yet to become a household word. Originally positioned as a portable audio system superior to a standard compact disc, the MiniDisc was off to a lame start. Then it was repositioned as a digital recording medium and it has managed to gain slow but steady acceptance into the homes of recording enthusiasts.

Simply put, the MiniDisc is a 2.5-inch version of a CD but with some quite notable exceptions: First of all it does not utilize the CD’s system of digital encoding so it is not compatible with a CD-you cannot play a CD in an MD player and vice versa. Since there is precious little prerecorded software on MD, you have to make recordings from CDs (or LPs). The good news is that you can make direct-to-digital recordings from CD players that include a digital output.

Another feature indigenous to the MD and not to the CD is the MD’s protective caddie. This is a plastic case that is part of the disc and keeps it from being exposed to the elements. This system resembles the floppy disc and is quite convenient for toting your software with minimal damage. For those of you with Discmen or car CD players, you know how easy it is to damage your CDs on the open road. The MD’s caddie allows you to stuff a bunch into your pack without worrying about mutilation of music.

As for the comparison in size, the MiniDisc is indeed just that – it measures about half the size of the 5-inch not-so-Compact Disc.

Finally, and most auspiciously, the MiniDisc records, and the majority of CD players do not (although that is changing-read on). This is especially true of portable CD players. The MiniDisc system utilizes a hybrid Magneto-Optical system whereby the laser is refracted by positive and negative charges rather than by microscopic holes in the CD’s surface commonly referred to as “pits and lands.”

The MD’s recording system, which doesn’t actually “burn” any holes into the discs, allows you to re-record onto a single MD up to one million times!

One possible drawback to the MiniDisc is that it actually stores less data than a CD. In order to use such small discs, it uses a “data reduction” system that will eliminate softer sounds that are obscured by similar louder ones. The system is called ATRAC and although purists might complain that some of the more delicate overtones may be lost, it is really, really hard to tell the difference between a CD and the MD version of the same passage.

One of the nicest things about the MiniDisc is its price. Sony is trying to get consumers to adopt the fledging format and is subsidizing it so that more people will buy. You can get a portable playback unit for under $200, and a portable recorder for under $300. Many folks opt for the MD Bundle. This package consists of a full-sized home unit and a portable playback unit packaged together for under $350! This is the perfect system for the home recordist because you can hook up the home player to your CD player’s digital output and it is component-sized so it will match the rest of your components in size and look. Then you can make your recordings for your portable player quite easily.

The theory behind the MiniDisc is not to replace your CD player. It is to replace your cassette deck. It is a much better mousetrap: Not only does it sound virtually as good as a CD, but it has some of the same amenities including instant track access, repeat, and random play (no more rewinding and fast-forwarding!). You can also make your own track names and subtext so that it appears in the player’s LCD.

CD-R Recorders

Just as Sony is blazing trails with the MiniDisc, Philips is the driving force behind CD-R, or CD recorders. Philips believes that people need one format and one format only and the compact disc is it. Therefore they have started to mass-produce home CD recorders. And these recorders are really starting to catch on at retail.

One of the biggest problems early on was the fact that CD recorders were all of the “Write Once” variety. This means that you get one chance to burn your CD.

If you screwed it up (false start, wrong track, forgot to push play, etc.), you had to throw out your new $14 blank disc. This did not go over well with Joe and Mary music lover who still couldn’t set their VCR’s clock.

Now Philips has delivered two more user-friendly ideas: Re-writeable CDs and dual CD recorders. For about $600, you can pick yourself up a CD recorder that uses re-writeable CDs so you can record over and over on the same discs a myriad of times. And for the same price, you can purchase a double deck that has two disc drives-one for playback and one for recording. Simply load up your prerecorded disc in one drive, and the blank in another, and make a perfect digital copy with the touch of a single button.

Most all CD-R units also include a built-in analog-to-digital converter so you can permanently archive old LPs and other analog media onto CD.

It is unclear who’s going to win this hi-fi war-Sony with MD, or Philips with CD-R. Even though Sony is one of the cofounders of the original CD format (Philips is the other), they only make a portion of the royalties from CD player sales. Philips, on the other hand, does not have any financial interest in the MiniDisc. But financial interest notwithstanding, it will boil down to whether the general public is willing to adopt another format, even though it is smaller and easier to carry around.

MP3-Turning the world on its ear

But wait, there’s more! There is a major wrinkle in the digital landscape and it has to do with a powerful data compression algorithm called MP3. MP3 is a software system that reduces large digital music files into “packets” that can be downloaded off of the Internet. This may sound tame enough at first, but it has severe ramifications.

Before we talk about the big picture, we need to talk about what makes the digital world go ’round: Data Compression. This is what it’s all about. Any computer user knows about Stuff-It programs that allow you to put a huge software application onto a single CD-ROM, or be able to download the application from a company’s Web site. This is what makes the Internet useable-especially to ordinary folks with dial-up modems as opposed to T-1 high-speed networks. Web site designers understand about speed-the best web-sites now use thumbnail photos and Java scripting so that they load onto your computer fast. Nobody has the time nor patience any more to wait around for more than a few seconds for sites to load.

Digital compression is just as important for video. MPEG-2 is a very powerful algorithm used for the transmission of video and is utilized in DVD, DIRECTV, and in the brand-new HDTV format. It allows gigantic higher-definition video data files to be stored on a 5-inch DVD, or sent through the air via satellite or digital terrestrial transmission. On average, video files are dozens of times larger than high fidelity audio digital files. And MP3, using a similar system as MPEG-2, allows the average Web surfer to get reasonably high-quality digital audio right through the phone lines. And it downloads fast-in a matter of minutes or less!

In order to get MP3 files, you need the MP3 “player” installed in your computer, which is actually software, not hardware (although you do need a sound card), and can be downloaded from their Web site. Then you can play music on your computer. If you want to play MP3 on your stereo, you’ll need an MP3 player, which uses a floppy disc to store less than 30 minutes of music. There is only one company-Rio-who produces these portable players that have headphones for portable use, and can also hook into your stereo receiver as well. You may not have heard of this brand. That’s because well-known audio companies like Pioneer or Yamaha won’t touch MP3 until the controversy has been worked out.

Now that you understand the technology of MP3, let’s talk about why this is so controversial. First of all, it basically puts the record industry out of business. If MP3 catches on, artists can put up their own Web sites and sell their music direct-to-consumer. With modern secure transaction capability, customers can pay for the music with their credit card and get it direct from the artist. As some of you might know, it doesn’t take an extraordinary capital investment to host your own Web site. And with incredible advances in home recording capability, a musician can buy the equipment to digitally record, mix, and master their own music and sell it on their own Web site for less than the cost of producing one “power-rock” single in the 1970s.

If this indeed becomes the case, then bye-bye traditional record labels, wholesale operations, and retail stores. Now, it just becomes a game of promotions-getting people turned on to music and to a site’s URL. Needless to say the record business is scrambling to get some kind of laws in place to keep MP3 from running rampant. Also, what’s to prevent a pirate from downloading music from someone’s site and then turning around and offering it for half of what the original artist was selling it for? Digital guidelines need to be set in this Wild, Wild West of e-commerce.

The good news is that perhaps finally independent artists can be heard without landing a record contract at a major label. All such aspiring artists need to do is to upload their digital recording onto their own Web site. So instead of a label having to make a major six-figure investment in recording, pressing, distributing and promoting a CD, the artist can “release” their music over the Web by themselves for a fraction of the cost. And people who are aficionados at navigating the Web will be able to find and download music quickly and efficiently.

But quantity doesn’t always translate into quality. Since everyone will able to release music on their own site, Lord knows how many hacks and weekend warriors will come out of the woodwork. There will be a whole new need for MP3 Internet critics!

Home Studio The Latest Digital Recording Gear

The Sony MZR55 is the recording version of the MZE55 player. Although it is larger than the E55, it is the world’s smallest recording MD unit. It features a remote control with editing functions, as well as 40-second shock resistant memory. It sells for about $350.

The Sony MZR55 is the recording version of the MZE55 player. Although it is larger than the E55, it is the world’s smallest recording MD unit. It features a remote control with editing functions, as well as 40-second shock resistant memory. It sells for about $350.

Philips CDR765 Dual Deck CD-Recorder. Has dual disc drivers for easy CD-to-CD recording and synchronized auto start record. Double speed recording lets you record discs quickly. Separate output for CDR and CD decks so you can use it as your main CD player. Sells for under $600.

Philips CDR880 Audio CD-Recorder. This model records on re-writeable CDs that can be recorded on up to 500 times. It also makes high-quality recordings of analog sources. It sells for around $600.

Originally Published